The Great Discontent

The Great Discontent

Will Bryant

Will Bryant

  • artist
  • illustrator

Austin-based artist and illustrator, Will Bryant, recalls how his sports-centric childhood gave way to a love for drawing during his college years, reflects on how self-initiated work has fueled his creative process, and challenges all of us to “embrace our weird,” no matter what we do or where we are.

Let’s dive in at the beginning of your story. Tell me about where you grew up and what your childhood was like. Most illustrators’ stories start out with them saying they drew all of the time. I still don’t really keep a sketchbook, but I admire all of the amazing illustrators who do. Instead, I tend to work project to project and wander through digital files and loose ink drawings.

My whole extended family is from Mississippi, but I grew up in Texarkana, TX, with both of my parents and two much older siblings. My brother is 10 years older and my sister is 7 years older, so it was almost like I had two sets of parents, except one set picked on me. (laughing) By the time I was older, my parents were much more lenient and let me roam the neighborhood. I could have gotten away with a lot more, but I was a really good kid for the most part. I cared about playing basketball, football, and video games, and building forts and goofing around with friends.

As a kid, I knew I was into different things than most of my schoolmates. Like a lot of art kids, I wore strange genre-clashing clothing, but I was also a leader on the football team. It was an awkward dynamic. The internet didn’t exist in full at that point, so I constantly looked for people who dressed differently or listened to different music.

For instance, there was a band in my hometown called Pilotdrift, and I became part of their circle of friends. They eventually signed to The Polyphonic Spree’s label, Good Records, which led to some of my first client projects. That whole crew was really influential and developed my interests beyond what was readily available at Sam Goody and Gap.

Was there anyone in your life who worked a nontraditional job that served as an example for you? The short answer is not really, but I had one example, which I used to convince my parents that an art degree was a good idea. The older brother of a band member in Pilotdrift, the band I mentioned earlier, was a graphic designer who got in on the cusp of Flash websites. That was my first exposure to graphic design, although I didn’t know what it was at the time.

Did you always plan to go to college after high school? I knew I would go to college because everyone in my family did. My dad worked his way through college and is a biochemist. I did not get his genes in regards to math and science. My mom is a teacher and taught third grade for twenty-something years before she recently retired. My parents were so pleased that I went to their alma mater, Mississippi State, but were concerned by the amount of neon and ridiculous dance parties, and the weird drawings I cranked out.

Sure, I like fun
Personal artwork

You said your childhood mostly revolved around sports. Had you already started to draw by the time you went to college? I had taken art class in 8th and 9th grades, but didn’t pursue it much further. In 8th grade, I painted Jesus soaring through a cloud-filled sky dunking a basketball—it’s easily one of my favorite pieces ever. (laughing) My books were covered in drawings of The Super S, sports logos, made-up uniforms, and guys with weird facial hair, but it wasn’t until after high school that drawing become a full-time interest.

In college, I showed up at Mississippi State and went to business school. Everything was branded, polished, new, and impressive. Then we discussed a list of math classes I had to take and I thought, that’s not going to work. I went over to the art department to meet with one of the professors. It was a temporary building, which was built in the 1940s and is still in use today. There was paint on the floor, fliers on the walls, and it was fairly dingy. I loved it! That was where I wanted to be, and I didn’t have to take nearly as many math classes.

Mississippi State is also where I met my good friend, Kate Bingaman-Burt, which changed my world forever. I had made friends with everyone who worked in the office, so I hung out in the teacher’s lounge a lot. Kate came by one day and I thought, “Who is this lady?” She wasn’t like anyone else there. She was my people.

Early on, I took foundation courses. I didn’t have a point of view yet, but I learned different mediums and basic principles. I had great teachers. Before that first design class I had with Kate, I had no idea that people made a living from design or that there was a history to it.

“…broaden your influences, specifically outside of the industry. What are your interests? How do you tap into those and let them manifest in your work over time?”

Hotdog Mustard Pump
Hotdog Mustard Pump, set design & art direction for a collaboration with Nicolle Clemetson and Kristin Lane, 2014
Hotdog Mustard Pump
Hotdog Mustard Pump, set design & art direction for a collaboration with Nicolle Clemetson and Kristin Lane, 2014

That sounds like an “Aha!” moment when you connected that you could actually make money doing this. Definitely. The other moment was when I met someone you’ve recently featured who was a long-time hero of mine: Mike Perry. He came to Mississippi State and gave a lecture around 2006 or 2007, just after he had left Urban Outfitters.

I had just done one of the first illustrative assignments from Kate’s class—a submission for Threadless. I showed Mike all of my other work that wasn’t good, had no personality, and was student work that met objectives, but wouldn’t stand up on its own. He saw my submission for Threadless and said, “You should do more of this. This has personality.”

I was a big fan of Mike’s work. Because of that experience, I think that he became too big of an influence, which, to my detriment, resulted in a lot of my early work being way too similar to his. I was still trying to figure out my style and point of view, but I wasn’t looking at visual culture from enough sources.

That’s an interesting point. When you haven’t yet put in the time and are trying to find your voice or style, you try different things and think maybe it’s this or this. You go through phases and might emulate your heroes. But you have a specific style now, so how did you get in tune with that? The main ingredient is time. The other thing that’s equally, if not more important, is to broaden your influences, specifically outside of the industry. What are your interests? How do you tap into those and let them manifest in your work over time? That happened for me on an even deeper level in grad school in Portland.

Forever Smiling
Forever Smiling, 2011, ink on paper, 22” x 30”

“This is true forever and always: no one really has it figured out. Everyone is on a different path and you figure it out through experience…It also might be easier to figure out what you want to do by first doing a lot things you don’t want to do.”

Let’s talk about that. You moved to Portland, Oregon, for grad school. Was that a big leap? Yes. I was already married to my wife, Sally, and that was the first time either of us had lived outside of the South. Sally and I both finished our undergraduate studies at the end of 2008—she was down the street at the University of Alabama. We got married in January 2009 and tried to go to Portland then, but it didn’t work out. Instead, we went to Austin and spent three great years there. I joined the shared studio space, Public School, and that’s where I started to learn about contracts, invoicing, negotiating, and how to run a business as an independent creative.

Tell me about your first year out of college. What was it like? My first year of freelancing in Austin was pretty sad money-wise, but that’s to be expected. The work got better and I continued to grow. After two or three years of nonstop hustling, I learned that balancing work that pays the bills and work that challenges and fulfills you is difficult, but necessary.

I actually got one of my dream jobs during my first year of freelancing, but I also got paid way too little because I had no idea what to charge. I thought it was a prank from one of my studio mates when I got an email from Nike to work on a global line of women’s t-shirts. I came up with an estimate entirely based on my rent. I seriously had no clue what to charge, but I knew I had to cover my rent, so, duh. I’ve worked for Nike since and have charged accordingly. (laughing) That mistake was only about money, but that project was necessary for me to gain confidence and feel like freelance was a legitimate path.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned during your first year out of school? This is true forever and always: no one really has it figured out. Everyone is on a different path and you figure it out through experience. I won’t preach about failure as a means to success, but I think it’s best to make an educated, research-based life decision, see what happens, evaluate, and respond accordingly. The chances that your first job will be your last are really low. It also might be easier to figure out what you want to do by first doing a lot things you don’t want to do.

Will’s new studio in Austin, Texas; photo by Casey Dunn
Plant and pizza: Photo by Casey Dunn

At what point did you finally make it to Portland for grad school? It was two and a half years later. I had an interest in teaching because of Kate’s influence on me and also because my mom, grandmother, and great-grandmother all taught. There’s this sense of giving back that I was drawn to.

I liked the environment at Portland State because there was a strong community and a lot of resources on and off campus. After I did a show in Portland in 2010 and basically met everyone who I knew online, I wanted to be in Portland. The community is so supportive, active, collaborative, and encouraging. As a bonus, that part of the country is absolutely gorgeous. A year later, I applied to grad school, got in, and Sally and I moved to Portland. There, I found myself pretty far from the illustration world while I studied in a contemporary studio art program, which is very self-directed and non-medium focused.

So that means you decided to focus on art versus commercial illustration or design. What drew you to the art side? I didn’t want to focus on a medium or craft for my MFA. I wanted to be challenged conceptually. I went into a strong contemporary studio art program and it was the most challenging creative experience I have ever endured. I was filled with self-doubt and overwhelmed by new material because I had to play catch-up on art history and the vocabulary of academia, but there was a huge payoff. My work got weirder and way more interesting as I broadened and deepened my influences through the exposure I had at Portland State.

I think the really good artists who go into a graduate program likely want to get away from commercial work. I did the opposite. I wanted to strengthen my fine art and commercial art. I’ve gone through periods of wanting to mentally separate my personal and commercial work, but I think they’re much stronger together. I make a living running a freelance illustration business, and I’m grateful for that. If you complain about drawing stuff and getting paid, you need to be fined or punished. (laughing)

That is a privileged position to be in. It’s very privileged, and I always try be thankful for the opportunities I have. It all comes back to balance though—doing the commercial work frees me up to do art on the side, which keeps me interested and challenged. These two sides of my practice aren’t exclusive. They influence each other. My first priority is to provide for my family, but my happiness is also intertwined with making stuff.

“I won’t preach about failure as a means to success, but I think it’s best to make an educated, research-based life decision, see what happens, evaluate, and respond accordingly.”

Hoop Dreams poster
Posters for the Austin, TX, venue Cheer Up Charlie’s
Your work is spam to somebody
Personal artwork

Even if you do interesting client work, I think there’s still something to be said for making work for yourself that’s outside of your normal day-to-day responsibilities. Oh, yeah, and that can be the most freeing or the most debilitating thing, especially if you have the mindset of a designer and are constantly problem-solving. You have to set parameters for yourself when there’s no pushback from a client or room of art directors.

Pushing yourself to do something solely for yourself reveals a lot about the process. Whether or not what you make is worth anything isn’t the important part. During grad school, I spent time researching the work of Ettore Sottsass, who founded the Italian design and architecture group, Memphis Group. I became infatuated with his 1973 essay, “When I Was a Very Small Boy.” He speaks of a yearning to play, to experiment without the distractions of an adult.

“I’d like to find somewhere to try out things, together, things to do with our hands or machines, in any way, not like boy scouts or even like craftsmen and not even like workers and still less like artists, but like men with arms, legs, hands, feet, hairs, sex, saliva, eyes and breath, and to do them, certainly not to possess things and to keep them for ourselves and not even to give them to others, but just feel what it’s like to do things by trying to do them, trying to find out whether everyone can do things, other things, with their hands or machines—or whatever—etcetera etcetera. Can it be tried?”

I think that is just so on point! It’s about curiosity and the self-driven investigation of life. For me, I’m still stuck on form and color, food, pop culture, and my love for sports. What can I make based on those ideas, which is plenty to chew on, and still find joy in the making?

I really like that. Do you get stuck when you’re working on self-initiated projects? For sure. While I don’t keep an illustrative sketchbook, I do have ideas and lists of things I want to make as a starting point. Sometimes I’m running out of time so I have to get over it and figure out how to get in the mood. I like to set a deadline with personal work because otherwise I’ll never do it. Oftentimes my self-initiated projects are organized like a client project on the backend, but I leave room for a process of discovery and experimentation. When I get stuck, I pause and look. Or I go get something to eat—or a drink. Also, exercise helps me get unstuck.

“Pushing yourself to do something solely for yourself reveals a lot about the process. Whether or not what you make is worth anything isn’t the important part.”

Characters from Summer 2015 TV IDs for Nick Jr.
Characters from Summer 2015 TV IDs for Nick Jr.
Cheeto Splash
Cheeto Splash, personal pattern artwork

Let’s talk about your move back to Austin from Portland. Was that recent? We left Portland in November 2015 and were with family over the holidays until January 2016. We were about to be priced out of Austin with the way it’s growing and our daughter was a year and a half old. It was a tough decision, but we wanted to be around family more and ultimately moved back for that. We also have friends here who we’re excited to be near, and my studio situation is really great. With all that said, moving is the worst—it’s so stressful and expensive. Neither my wife or I were ready to leave Portland. That place will always be special to us.

From a career standpoint, were you fearful about how the move would impact your work? For sure. It’s tough to think about work and career versus family. It feels like there’s a greater impact on family because I can adapt and make things work career-wise from nearly anywhere. But my location isn’t a big deal in regards to client work, so that is really nice.

This question ties into that. What are your thoughts on your legacy, and has having a kid made you think more about your future? I started out with no idea that I could make a living doing this. Working for 6 years and not ending up in the gutter is amazing in itself, and supporting a family for over 2 years on a single income as a commercial artist is even more amazing—and stressful.

Should I really care about a prestigious industry award or cool collaboration more than how can I influence this small person, aka my daughter, to be a really cool human? Not to ruin the ending for you, but cool kid wins out. That’s not to pass off all the things I’ve done or want to do. I still want to do it all!

Maybe on my gravestone it could say: He tried, and he really cared. That seems pleasant. I mean he tried, like in a good way, or he tried, but maybe he didn’t do so good. I like the duality of that. Let’s leave it up to the viewer. Now I’m speaking as if my gravestone is an art installation. (laughing)

And just the fact that you tried. I often wonder if successful people merely outlast everyone else because they keep getting up and trying. Maybe we don’t notice their failures because of the sheer number of things they’ve done. That’s why at 30 I don’t want to think about legacy. I’m not even halfway there. I need to keep trying.

You have more life to live before you have a solid answer. Yeah, I need to prove myself more. I wanna be the old dude in the neighborhood who’s building sets for the school play. I just want to constantly be making things.

The cool thing about that is that your daughter will see you making things, and so will other kids. You might be for someone else what Kate Bingaman-Burt was for you. You might help a kid feel less weird and alone. I would love that! You have to embrace your weird. It sounds like a Sesame Street episode, but it’s so true.

Actually, there’s a story from my time in Mississippi that hits on embracing the weird. I made my first trip to New York with the Mississippi State art department around 2006. The museums, galleries, and the city were incredible. Then we went to this warehouse in the Navy Yard that was a dance club. I wondered why that didn’t exist in Mississippi—actually, I can think of several reasons. (laughing)

Back in Mississippi, I planned a house party and started to DJ. I had this persona called The Hooded Deer, which was kinda psychedelic and kinda southern. At that time, all the cool indie bands were animal-related: Animal Collective, Deerhunter, Grizzly Bear. For every show there was a ridiculous theme and I dressed up, made mini art installations on the stage, and made merch to sell.

It started out small with 60 people at the first party and 150 at the next. Then I began to play venues and it organically grew after I met a guy with a small production company. We teamed up and worked our asses off to make sure people had a good, safe time. A few years later, I was flown back to Mississippi to host a dance party of 900 people at this beautiful old theater. It was like my art fraternity or sorority, but very inclusive because everyone was encouraged to dress up and dance with no shame. I credit The Hooded Deer parties for the development of my sensibility and style. There’s now a pretty active dance scene in Starkville and it has brought so many people together.

I like that you didn’t let your location limit you. If I can do that in rural Mississippi, you should do whatever you want to do, no matter where you are. If you have an idea, make it happen! Or at least try. (insert wink emoji)interview close

Junk Food print for Poler Stuff Spring 2016
Junk Food print for Poler Stuff Spring 2016